So I spent my Christmas reading the Hypo Alpe-Adria crash investigation, in a follow-up to this post . The point that stands out for me is that I don’t think you can blame this one on incompetence. Too many actors involved got what they wanted for that. Instead, they adopted a form of strategic incompetence that has long historical roots in Austria and its former empire, following the creases left by major historical events.
To kick off, the transition of Carinthia’s state-owned mortgage lender to a universal bank was an event conditioned by several massive historical phenomena. One of these was financial globalisation. Another was the relaunch of European integration. A third was the desire of important politicians in Austria to have alternatives to the postwar long coalition. It’s telling that Hypo Alpe-Adria, hereafter HAA, opened its first international office in 1986, about the time the extreme-right FPO was in government for the first time, in a weird alliance with the Social Democrats. Its new name, with its vaguely imperial claim to the “Alps-Adriatic”, actually appeared before the end of communism, and it began to do business in the former Yugoslavia even before it was former.
So the transformation of HAA gave its shareholders, at the time the state of Carinthia, a Steiermark mutual insurer, and some employees, a number of benefits. One of these was an economic strategy – we’re going to create a financial centre and we’re also going to invest in this new region. Another was something like having your own independent foreign policy – after all, the region was being conceptualised at the same time as the bank was being reorganised. Yet another was a source of budget revenue, from taxes and from the annual premium it paid for its state guarantee. Less legitimately, it was also a slush fund that could be used to look after important political constituencies.
And, from a very high level, it also played an important role in integrating the far right back into Austrian and European politics. The regional concept the bank embodied was one rooted in the empire and revived by the Nazis, and much loved by Austrian and German extremists. While Carinthia was an obscure collection of minor ski resorts crammed up against the iron curtain, its political elite didn’t have much to offer in exchange for rehabilitation, which they needed because their key political party had basically been invented as a lobby for old Nazis’ interests in the late 1940s. (The same thing nearly happened with the German FDP, but its liberal core and the allied oversight won out.) With a key lender in the reunification of Europe under their command, they counted for something. Wir sind wieder wer.
The European project was both a precondition of all this and also a threat to it. Without the facts of reunification and integration, it would never have gone anywhere. Without Austrian membership of the EEA and then the EU, it would never have been practical. But joining the union also made the whole deal problematic. The union didn’t, at least in principle, like state aid or special arrangements. It was especially keen to get rid of the state guarantees for German landesbanken and their equivalents. It was also keen on privatising all the things.
The owners of HAA formed a strategy to let them have it all. They would progressively sell down the shareholding, sticking at a blocking minority. They would put off unwinding the guarantee as long as possible, and load up on as much cheap funding as possible before the evil day. In the end they legislated in such a way as to let them keep guaranteeing HAA as long as it paid a market rate, which they didn’t define. The premiums were nice for the state budget and the cheap funding critical for the growth strategy. Influence would take the place of control.
Of course, people now ask “Why did they sign up to all those guarantees?” The investigation wonders why they kept guaranteeing even after they didn’t have majority control. But this is strategic incompetence for you. First of all, they relied on informal influence and personal networks to steer the bank. Second, the actors who mattered didn’t care about the risks because they well knew they weren’t meaningfully on the hook for them. Similarly, the Bavarian landesbank that bought HAA was convinced that the Austrian federal authorities were in charge, while both they and the Carinthians believed (or faked it) that the Germans were in charge.
The structure permitted all parties to get what they wanted. We don’t usually think of getting exactly what you want as being “incompetent”.
In 2006, when the Carinthians began selling down their shareholding, the accounts used for the due-diligence process dated back to 2002/2003 for the crucial South-Eastern European assets. This seems crazy. But it was just what the people who mattered wanted. There is an Austrian word, Schlamperei, which describes a sort of institutional blundering into the best course for one’s own interests. Then again, when Deutsche Telekom was ordered by its regulator to let other operators unbundle its lines, it regularly just failed to know they existed or where they were.
A poorly controlled SEE-focused landesbank was just what Jörg Haider wanted, and you can read the eventual sale to the Austrian feds as a scheme by the Carinthians and Bavarians, presumably with German federal acquiescence, to burn the other Austrians.
In practice, the strategic incompetence worked like this. In 2004, HAA engaged in a variety of transactions in derivatives that boosted its interest margins while taking risk on the absolute base rate. This worked for a while and then didn’t. They hid the losses, until they got caught. The then CEO, Kulterer, had to quit but couldn’t be questioned by financial regulators because the police wanted to talk to him. Because he wasn’t under a regulatory inquiry, that meant he could become chairman of the supervisory board. (In the changed post-crash climate, he went to jail.)
The plan had been to float HAA, but this was now out of the question. The state of Carinthia had borrowed against the IPO proceeds, which forced someone to do something. Strategic incompetence again. The solution was to do a small rights issue, and get a hedgie called Tilo Berlin to take the other end. The inquiry found that there were no named politicians on his share register but there were some companies whose beneficial owners they couldn’t trace. This was called the Austrian solution, although Berlin’s vehicle was registered as a Luxembourg SARL.
Berlin’s unique selling point was that he was willing to accept a fairness opinion that said HAA was worth what Haider wanted it to be, issued by a local tax adviser in Klagenfurt who got €12m for his trouble, although Haider then demanded half of it back as a “patriotic rebate”. HSBC and Rothschilds were asked, too, but oddly declined to agree with this valuation. HAA’s own auditors thought the due diligence was pathetic, the data room a joke, and the disclosure bordering on the fraudulent, but Berlin and his investors didn’t mind because they almost certainly already knew BayernLB would take it off their hands after a decent interval. After all, they lent them some of the money. Again, everyone with any power got just what they wanted.
Meanwhile, Haider and his circle ran the bank like they wanted. It lent enormously in the Balkans and looked after his people. When an ill-thought out airline venture was close to failure, Haider himself as chairman ordered that it get a €3m equity contribution, plus a €2.5m line of credit that was drawn down and lost within two days. The loan agreement was recorded as a “note on the file”. An Austrian senator with €9.23m in debts as a sole trader got a 50% writeoff, with more of the debt converted to an equity-kicker, permitting him to save the inheritance. Strangely, HAA never tried to collect on the land he put up as security.
Although it couldn’t be said for the man himself, Haider’s machine in Carinthia got out in time. None of the regional shareholders bothered to contribute a cent to the first bailout in 2008. With the crisis, HAA met another group of powerful people who wanted to have it all – the European Commission, which wanted stability as long as it didn’t cost anything. In order to comply with the state aid restrictions, it was necessary for the Austrian central bank, OeNB, to decide whether HAA was “distressed” or “not distressed”, and also whether it was “sound” or “not sound”. The OeNB held that it was “not distressed”, but stated that this did not mean it was “sound”. Helpful!
But then again, everyone who mattered got what they wanted. The state of being not distressed helped on interest rates, while the state of not being sound helped with regulatory clearance. If the situation was absurd, well, that was precisely what strategic incompetence was meant for, and anyway, shouldn’t the people who made the rules take some responsibility?
Then, as J.K. Galbraith said, things became more serious. As 2009 went on, a classic “slow” or “invisible” run on the bank developed, led by big-ticket depositors, often wholesale. Ironically, one of the biggest single names to move out was the state of Carinthia’s treasury.
This is where I disagree with the crash report. Concretely, BayernLB forced their hand by pulling HAA’s lines of credit with the parent company and invoking a mandatory set-off clause that effectively froze much of its cash. The inquiry argues that the Austrian government could have put HAA into insolvency and challenged this in the bankruptcy court, had they only taken more legal advice. Instead, BLB offered to maintain some of HAA’s liquidity and write off €500m of debts if the Austrian feds would buy the bank.
Interestingly, BayernLB had actually done something similar in the past, when they owned a Croatian bank. On that occasion, there was a run on the bank and BayernLB insisted on selling it back to the Croatian fisc. The circumstances of this were such that in 2007, the Croatian central bank tried to block the sale of HAA unless BLB cooperated with their inquiry, dramatically restricted its loan growth, increased its regulatory capital, and made a public apology. However, “high political pressure” was brought to bear – I think this means either the European institutions or Germany or both – and the central bank reversed itself. They didn’t even get the apology.
But I find the criticism wise after the event. It’s true that both the Bavarians (and the German feds) and the Carinthian pols got away with it at the expense of the Austrian federal budget. But nobody knew what would happen if a federal state became insolvent, or what would happen to BayernLB, or to the South-Eastern European banking system, still less what would happen if all of them happened at once. The prospect of perhaps recovering more money in insolvency in the distant future must have seemed a little remote and vague. HAA might not have been systemically important in 2008, but one of the major lessons of the great financial crisis was that it is fear that makes systemic importance.
Similarly, the inquiry rather oddly complains that the feds spent too much time and money combing the crash site for clues. The main evidence of this is that the HAA management complains a lot about how many employees are seconded to help with the special audit. But, as the late Mandy Rice-Davies would say, he would say that, wouldn’t he?
There is a good point here, though. HAA was probably the most directly and egregiously crooked of the bank failures of 2008-2009. But the problem wasn’t that Herr Marolt got let off half his debts, and treating it as if a really big forensic audit would fix it was a mistake. Although the post-crash investigation was meticulous, and quite a few HAA execs went to jail, the Austrian taxpayer is no less on the hook for the money than she was at the beginning of the process, and HAA is still stinking up the shed. It’s even paying premiums to Carinthia.
The problem, really, is that HAA’s rise and fall followed all sorts of deep features of the EMU and enlargement projects. It was bigger and more interesting than just a fraud. At every turn, you find arrangements that let various privileged groups get what they wanted, usually allowing them to have several contradictory advantages at once by dumping risks on someone else. Even the European Commission was at it – although it repeatedly badgered the Austrians to create a state-owned bad bank, it also pushed the “six pack” balanced budget amendment and insisted that the rest of the budget suffer for it. Similarly, it somehow determined that the €30-odd billion in total that BayernLB got from the Bavarian and German governments wasn’t state aid although the Austrian bailout of its subsidiary HAA kind of was.
In the end, everyone who mattered got exactly what they wanted.